William Durbin: I found that writing in the first person allowed me to imagine the story through Sean's eyes. Though I'm used to relying much more on dialogue, once I found Sean's voice, the experience became both immediate and enjoyable.
RFA & LMP: In doing the research for The Journal of Sean Sullivan, what did you uncover that surprised you most?
WD: The thing that surprised me most was the corrupt behavior of the officials who were building the railroad. Though government construction payments and land grants would have allowed the owners of both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads to acquire wealth honestly, they were always scheming to find ways to cheat the public out of more money.
RFA & LMP: Sean often comments on the overt prejudice he sees around him. Was this prejudice displayed by the workers a result of their social class or were they simply mirroring a general feeling held by Americans in the late 1860s?
WD: I think it's a combination of both. Irish immigrants had traditionally been relegated to a lower social status. They were assigned the most difficult jobs, such as digging the Erie Canal and filling in the Chicago lake front, and they became known as pick and shovel men. When the Irish showed prejudice toward the Native Americans and Chinese, they were, unfortunately, engaging in the same sort of discrimination that they had experienced. Americans in the 19th century — and this is not to say we have evolved beyond it today — tended to have a narrow, racially biased view of the world.
RFA & LMP: Your description of General Jack Casement makes him see bigger than life. In your research, did you find him admirable or was he also a scoundrel bilking the government and investors?
WD: I think Casement was a military man at heart. He regarded the building of the railroad as a mission that needed to be accomplished. Thanks to the American Heritage Center in Laramie, I had the opportunity to read Casement's personal correspondence, and I was impressed by the tenderness he showed toward his wife and family in his letters. Though he was rough on the outside, I think he was an honest and well intentioned man.
RFA & LMP: You've said that Gary Paulsen inspired you to try your hand at writing for young people. Has Paulsen's writing had any impact on your own?
WD: Gary Paulsen has a gift for writing in a simple and direct style. This is something which I am still trying to emulate. Since I primarily wrote poetry and essays before I began writing for young people, I always have to fight the urge to get overly descriptive and "high toned."
RFA & LMP: If a youngster who had just read The Journal of Sean Sullivan was interested in reading another book about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, do you have a title or two that you would recommend?
WD: One of the best sources on the Union Pacific's work on the Transcontinental Railroad is A Great and Shining Road by John Hoyt Williams. Young readers may enjoy Kristiana Gregory's Dear America book, The Great Railroad Race, The Diary Of Libby West; Lawrence Yep's The Dragons Gate; and Full Steam Ahead by Rhoda Blumberg.
RFA & LMP: In addition to writing books, you are also a teacher. If you could ask young readers of Sean's journal one question after they finished reading the book, what would that question be?
WD: What are the lessons that we should learn from this period in history?
RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of Sean Sullivan?
WD: I hope that they would learn that persistence and hard work are essential if a young person wants to reach his/her potential.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.